We're in familiar territory here. From Philip K. Dick to the X-Files, the idea is that the weird guy connecting random dots in seemingly tenuous ways to reveal a grand conspiracy involving aliens and other dimensions is actually on to some greater truth. And the fact that occasionally life does indeed imitate fiction serves to buttress the paranoid fantasy further.
Stranger things have happened.
Roscoe Baragon, the protagonist of the debut novel by Jim Knipfel (himself a strange guy), is a little odd, though not remotely as bizarre as the stories he likes to write. Once a first class journalist, Roscoe now lazily covers a self-appointed "Kook Beat" of various crackpots and outcasts whose stories don't adhere to the standard line of thought of the clinically sane. This overweight, alcoholic, hygienically-challenged, and, needless to say, cynical reporter says he's "giving a voice" to New York City's underclass, though it seems more likely he's just trying to piss off his editor and draw a paycheck without overly exerting himself.
Some of the outlandish ramblings Roscoe has of late been attempting, unsuccessfully, to report as legitimate news -- a murder suspect who claims knowledge of something called the Seatopian Vigilante Action army, an apparent official cover-up of a corpse that set off radiation detectors in the city morgue, and the disappearance of people who've lived in buildings owned by the landlord of the recently deceased -- as well as some legitimate stories Roscoe has to write to avoid getting fired -- an abandoned space station falling out of orbit heading towards the Pacific Ocean, some unusual volcanic activity -- begin to form tenuous connections. These connections form stronger bonds when people definitely not in the crazy camp -- a NASA spokesperson, a physicist, Roscoe's platonic girlfriend / drinking buddy who also works in the aforementioned morgue as a city mortician -- suggest that there's more behind the official explanation of these events. Roscoe's investigation leads to the toga-wearing head of a real estate company with holdings that turn up on the periphery of these disparate events. Thanks to Roscoe's obsessive affection for Japanese monster movies, the plot of a particularly poor Godzilla sequel reveals the missing pieces he needs to piece together his conspiracy theory. Bad things are going to happen. But who is going to listen?
The Buzzing comes with a bit of a pre-publication buzz. To begin with, there's a book blurb from everyone's favorite paranoid, Thomas Pynchon. So this must be heavy stuff, right? Knipfel himself has an intriguing pedigree, first as a Hunter S. Thompson-esque columnist in the alternative press (and the degree to which the personalities of Roscoe and Knipfel dovetail I can only guess) and as a memoirist of his failed suicide attempts and incarceration in a mental hospital. And then there's the fact that this is being released by mainstream "literary" imprint Vintage Books rather than Random House's Ballantine/Del Rey SF/Fantasy arm.
Which raises the interesting (but perhaps too-frequently asked, if not banal) question, "Is this SF/fantasy?" Well, strictly speaking, it's not science fiction, in that its plot doesn't require science -- unless you count internet searches and the capability of VCRs to play back movies that would otherwise be forgotten -- though it does make reference to such science fictional staples as things from outer space and radioactive monsters. Nor is it fantasy, strictly speaking, in that its plot doesn't include dwarves or evil wizards. However, it does deal with the classic SFnal trope of "aliens amongst us" that began with John W. Campbell Jr.'s "Who Goes There?". Of course, this trope was reflective of a culture itself paranoid about the possibility of communist infiltrators. PKD spun this around to talk about the paranoia fueled by mind-expanding drugs, the Warren Commission, a Conradian war of darkness fought by body counts, and Nixonian noxiousness. All of this has since percolated into fiction or television shows based on the premise that grand conspiracies -- often sanctioned, if not by the government itself, then by the shadow authorities who really control things -- lie behind the cosmic coincidences of modern life.
The attraction of all this conspiracy theory is that it's in some respects reassuring to think that apparently random acts of violence and stupidity are really the result of some hidden intelligence, like God really does have a logical plan, despite the unfathomable manifestations of that plan. The lone gunman is more frightening to our epistemological ego than the thought of superior but shady forces pulling the strings towards disaster.
This stuff is pretty much old hat for genre readers. Amusing though he is, Knipfel, unfortunately, doesn't do too much different with this standard trope. Perhaps this explains why the book is being marketed to a mainstream audience for whom such ideas might appear fresh or innovative; perhaps I'm guilty, though, of the common tendency of conspiracy theorists to read more into the situation than there really is.
But even putting aside the "been there, done that" reaction to its handling of well-worn SF/F tropes, how does it work as a piece of fiction, or as something intended only to entertain? I think that it succeeds in the latter, but not so much in the former, even putting aside the familiar territory it ploughs.
The first problem could be the protagonist himself. He's not a particularly likeable guy. Let's put it another way: he's a loser, a slob, a drunk. My wife complained that she couldn't get into the book because she disliked Roscoe so much. On the other hand, I kind of liked him (which probably is less a plus for the book than a comment on my own peculiar tastes). Needless to say, there's no "rule" that a novel needs a commendable hero. But as anti-heroes go, Roscoe is a bit lame. There's no convincing explanation of why Roscoe went from being an ace reporter to a dead weight beyond a passing reference to his getting off amphetamines, which supposedly had something to do with his investigative reportorial success, and that his past success enables him to negotiate a cushy position in a second-rate paper and draw an easy salary. It would have been one thing if Roscoe had always been a slacker, but his abrupt change from award-winning journalist to low-life slouch, without some life-changing event, is another. It just isn't believable. Similarly, how a character close to Roscoe goes from being a trusted ally to seemingly one of the co-conspirators is also a bit of a stretch considering that this same character earlier tips Roscoe off to the event that triggers his investigation.
So, some flaws in logic, some superficial characterization, but what about the story itself? Well, what we've basically got is a bunch of disparate circumstances with a couple of clues with which the alert reader can make some connections, but which doesn't begin to make "sense" -- if that's the right term -- until our protagonist, a highly opinionated connoisseur of bad movies, puts on an old Japanese monster video. Then, in the Twilight-Zone fashion that earns aspiring, green-footed SF writers many of their rejection letters, Knipfel leaves the denouement sufficiently ambiguous that the reader must decide who's crazy and who's not.
So, to a certain extent, this book is overhyped -- nothing particularly original or groundbreaking here. On the other hand, and here's the good part, some of it is wryly funny:
When he was in the eleventh grade, he'd been asked to write movie reviews for the school newspaper. He'd never tried any such thing before, but as it turned out he had a bit of a knack for it. The words -- and the bile -- just seemed to come naturally to him. After a few months, he also (under the pseudonym Woozy Winks) started writing angry, vicious letters to the editor of the same paper, complaining bitterly about the piss-poor quality of the movie reviews. After graduation, he'd typed up a fictional resume and got himself a job writing the crime blotter for the Richmond Register, a weekly neighborhood shopper. Two years later, after his editor decided that headlines like "Idiot Leaves Window Open, Loses Everything" and "Jackass on Skateboard Pummeled by Lummox" -- together with young Baragon's flagrant overuse of exclamation points -- were too mean-spirited, Baragon took a job as a crime reporter in Minneapolis.
There's also Knipfel's rueful observations about modern urban existence:
Baragon lived on the third floor of a brownstone on the raggedy western edges of Park Slope. It was considered an upscale neighborhood by Brooklyn standards, and he supposed most of it was, but the gentrification that had started creeping into the area a decade earlier had yet to touch his block. Where he was, the park across the street was still home to dealers and two-buck chippies every night, the local bars still home to thugs, and the shop owners weren't very nice to you if you didn't speak Spanish. He could understand that. He'd probably feel the same way if his family had been there for generations, only to see the small bodegas and fish stores forced out by espresso bars and holistic pet supply shops.
If this kind of prose makes you smirk knowingly to yourself, then this is your kind of book. Similarly, if you've any familiarity with a newsroom -- or are just plain despondent about what passes as local news these days -- you'll enjoy the depiction of Roscoe as the journalist/craftsman educated through the school of hard knocks, as opposed to the slick-haired journalism school graduate whose grammar skills, not to mention street skills, leave something to be desired. There's also the frisson between Roscoe and his editor, which anyone who has had their copy butchered or buried inside where it's unlikely to be read will greatly appreciate.
While The Buzzing isn't on par even with minor Dick (an interesting phrase in and of itself), it has its moments. A worthwhile read, even if it's a stopgap for those of us with a taste for offbeat characters and strange situations, who are waiting for the next Carl Hiaasen novel.
Copyright © 2003 David Soyka
David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art. For more about him, visit his website.